Road Trip 2011: Pacific Coast Highway

Posted on June 28, 2011

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*The eternal dilemma for travel writing is finding time to write while traveling. I’m no exception to this. This series of dispatches from a recent road trip will be a bit delayed as I have a tendency to travel while traveling, filling up every second of every day with whatever may be, rather than sitting at the keyboard… as every traveler should. I hope you enjoy our journey.*

The Pacific Coast highway is one of those things that every American should do once in their life, or so says many travel guides. It symbolizes American ‘can-do’ attitude by stringing together a highway on some of the most challenging terrain; a feat of engineering in some of the most beautiful coastal areas that exist; America’s best ‘free’ attraction—you know, all that kind of stuff. There is so much of an aura surrounding the PCH that if there is any chance for you to drive this stretch of concrete, you really should.

So we did. We scheduled in two full days of driving and two nights of camping along Oregon’s Highway 101 and California’s Highway 1.

For time’s sake, we drove I-5 south to Eugene and dove into the coast from there. Just off the intersection with the 101, was our day’s destination that I was particularly looking forward too: Sandmaster Park. This was another feature on some show of places to visit on some cable channel. Here you could rent altered snow and wake boards and surf the large sand dunes rising from the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunatly… we arrived 20 minutes after it closed… so we continued on. Thus is travel.

As a consolation, we stopped one of the many protected beach areas near Dune City, OR for some pictures and frolicking in the sand. It was our first taste of the PCH and we were both particularly jacked to see endless ocean. We arrived at our seaside campground outside of Brookings, OR, at twilight. The rhythm of faint crashing waves and light sea breezes serenaded us to sleep. A great night spent in the tent.

***

The second day was going to be a doozy. Not far south of Brookings was the California border and soon after was the famed Redwoods. In our trip preparation, I was looking for off-the-beaten-trail type things to do: hikes, cafés, and other things that would keep us void of the dreaded tourist hordes and tour buses. That prompted my new favorite quote of Cassie’s, “Jon, let’s just be the tourists that we really want to be.” I immediately started looking for anything that would double as a fanny pack.

We headed to the National Park ranger station for some info, patches (of course), and any kind of direction they could offer. We settled on a six-mile scenic drive through some old-growth forest finishing off through Crescent City and a ramble down the Avenue of the Giants; the latter we had planned on ever since I learned about being able to drive through a tree (that’s the tourist in me, that I ‘really want to be’).

The scenic road bisected the state forest that is adjacent to the national parkland outside of town. The road turned to dirt signaling the start of the true redwoods. Two things became immediately apparent: the redwood forests are terribly incredible and I’ll probably have to spend some time reviewing far too many pictures of trees. It is hard to describe their immensity; imagine the buildings of Manhatten as trees—they are that large, that impressive, and that oppressive. There are times when I am truly amazed at nature—they happen all the time—this would be one of those times. Pictures just seemed futile.

The loop took us through downtown Crescent City passed a beautiful lighthouse that we stopped at. Since I’ve known Cass, she’s always had this picture of a lighthouse in her bathroom that has since made its way into ‘our’ bathroom. I grew up on Lake Michigan, so pictures of lighthouses were pretty commonplace—I never really thought about it much—but I’ve always thought that in Montana, hundreds if not thousands of miles from the nearest lighthouse, this picture sticks out as a little odd. Neither of us even thought about the coastal lighthouses we’d pass until this. Happy accidents are those of the very best kind. The lighthouses along the way were our new destinations along the coast.

The Avenue of the Giants is a road that parallels 101 taking you through some more of the mind bending, old-growth monstrosities—both trees and tourist attractions. Since I started researching this area, I had two goals of our trip: drive through a tree and drink a cup of coffee inside a tree.

To give you an idea about how large these trees really are; before human consciousness existed, a number of these megatrees went under the knife for our own amusement. Everyone has likely seen those pictures of the 1950’s Chevy Thunderbird driving through a tree from ‘back in the day.’ We found this. And Squirt the Kia Soul, a 2011version of that classic automobile, had a chance to follow suit.

We paid our $6, I jumped out of the car with my camera, and let Cass do the honors. Let me be honest… not that cool. But, I’m fully committed to being a tourist.

Worry not, my faithful readers, the $6 was totally worth it once we discovered what rested just before the ‘park’ exit: tree houses. Not just any tree houses, these were two-story, hollowed out Redwoods, still standing, complete with windows, doors, and a staircase. From this point on, these tree houses will be the measure against every other I encounter in my life. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Down more of the curvy road, we hit a low, ah, high as being a tourist goes. A giant tree, I mean giant, was felled, hollowed, and converted into a house. A friggin’ house! We donated our $1 to walk through this little ditty: kitchen, bathroom, dining room, bedroom… this was a full-on tube of home. Impressive, but still a commitment to my unyielding desire of tourism.

Really, at this point, you can only spend so much time looking at trees and taking their pictures, so we went back to the highway and headed to the coast.

***

The PCH is a ribbon of concrete, an engineering marvel, that tightly hugs the rugged coast. Every turn, and there are a lot of them, revealed more postcard beauty than the previous turn. The speed limit is typically around 55 mph, which is nothing more than a challenge in my eyes since the sheer amount of hair-pin turns paired with stunning coastal beauty won’t allow a responsible driver to drive more than 45… and that’s pushing it.

The last one-hour of driving before we hit San Francisco provided a bit of a funny challenge to overcome: it never ended. In fact, I think I’m still driving that last stretch of road. First, we assumed the remaining 60 miles would take roughly an hour. Then, we checked the internet and it said the final 50 miles would take about an hour. Then it said the final 30 miles would take an hour… 10 miles would take and hour… 1 mile would be an hour… we were in San Francisco and it took an hour—not really but it sure seemed like it.

To put the PCH in a nutshell: I’m really glad we drove it, took our time to enjoy it, but I’m not too sure I’d ever do it again (I may dabble along the southern portion, but not it’s entirety).

As stupid as this sounds, our trek ended with a surprise:

“Hey, Cass, I can see the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

“Whoa, we’re getting real close.”

“Holy crap, we’re driving right towards it.”

“I’m pretty sure we’re gonna drive over it. Hell yeah, welcome to San Francisco!”

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